La Belle Noiseuse is a tricky film to leave behind, but it's also a tricky film to get into, and that's in part down to the hour of preamble director Jacques Rivette and co-writers Christine Laurent and Pascal Bonitzer, elaborating on Balzac's short story The Unknown Masterpiece, set forth before arriving at their main event: a painstakingly detailed study in the politics of painting and the creation of a masterpiece. A young couple, Nicolas and Marianne (David Bursztein and Emmanuelle Béart) arrive at a vast house for reasons that aren't ever entirely clear - possibly, they want to buy it, or maybe Nicolas just wants to meet the famous painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) who lives there. Over tea and tarte tatin, the painter suggests to Nicolas that Marianne should pose for him while he completes a work abandoned many years before when his wife Liz (Jane Birkin) was his model. Nicolas enthusiastically assents, which pees Marianne off no end, but she shows up anyway, possibly out of spite.
What follows is initially very stagy and far from cinematic - you feel Rivette killing time around the painter's home and garden - but it begins to take shape once we're locked into Frenhofer's perfectly lit studio for a series of charged encounters between artist and model. Suddenly, the film assumes an air of social realism, fascinated by a method of working; and though in this instance, we're asked to observe a well-to-do painter rather than individuals grafting to keep their heads above the poverty line, the labour appears barely less demanding. Much of the hard graft was performed by real-life artist Bernard Dufour, whose hands take remarkable close-ups that double for Piccoli's activity and make riveting the sight of ink, charcoal and finally paint being dabbed on blank canvasses as the work comes to be fleshed out.
Lest that seem altogether austere, it should be noted that Béart, in one of her more roundly gorgeous incarnations, spends at least two-and-a-half hours of the film dressed in no more than the peachiest of skin tones. No film has been centred so on the male gaze, privileged above all else, though Béart makes good use of fierceness to break a pose, and Piccoli avoids stressing any overtly sexual notes in his performance. Arguably, La Belle Noiseuse falls into that highbrow fantasy subgenre, beloved of ageing Euro directors, in which a filmmaker-substitute the script appoints as A Great Artist gets to disrobe a nubile young woman and twist her largely pliant form into (often painful) shapes. (It's possible Béart had to strip twiceover: once for Dufour while posing for the drawings and paintings we see in the final film, then again for Piccoli and Rivette as the cameras started turning; there might well be a smidgen of hypocrisy in the fact Piccoli is allowed a double, but the actress isn't.)
The film is more concerned by big themes than characterisation per se. Though it's always fun to have Birkin's faint air of dottiness around, both she and everyone beyond the studio prove to be irrelevances, narratively speaking, perhaps as they're real people rather than representatives of the classical archetypes of artist and muse. Equally, what we get is less story than an extended discourse on the history and philosophy of art, which is obviously going to turn off as many as it enthrals. Still, at its most focused, the whole achieves what Rivette's best films have always achieved: enabling the spectator to lose track of time ("I could be 100 years old, I could be a baby," as Béart puts it), absorbing us into the rhythms of the workshop, and opening up even a hardliner like myself - someone convinced there are few legitimate reasons why a movie should last a moment longer than 90 minutes - to the suggestion that it finishes when the work is finished, and not a damn second beforehand.
La Belle Noiseuse is not presently available on DVD, nor on streaming.